StoriesSara Alfageeh ’18

Reclaiming Agency Through Comics

Illustration major Sara Alfageeh's essay, "How Muslim Comic Creators are Reclaiming Their Narratives," was selected as one of three Kingston-Mann Student Achievement Awards winners.

student selling artwork speaking to customer

The University of Massachusetts Boston started the Kingston-Mann Awards to recognize the work of students who make a valuable contribution to diversity and inclusion scholarship by expanding our understanding of ideas and experiences that have not always been acknowledged or recognized by traditional disciplines.

Students can be producers as well as receivers of research and knowledge. The awards are intended to encourage students to discover their potential as researchers.

The College of Art and Design had a chance to speak with Sara about her essay, and how working outside the classroom (and studio) have strengthened her as an illustrator.

How did you come across the Kingston-Mann Award competition?

I took a Post-Colonialism Historiography and Literature class as my "fun" elective in the spring 2016 semester. The instructor, Assistant Professor Kimberly Lowe Frank, encouraged the class regularly to submit to the competition.

What is your essay, "How Muslim Comic Creators are Reclaiming Their Narratives," about?

To put it simply, Muslim women reclaim agency comics and the importance of having diverse protagonists. The paper explores the stereotypes and tropes that have persisted in western media regarding Muslim women, but more importantly how female Muslim comic creators like Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson of Ms. Marvel and Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis are working against that. They are using the unique platform created by comics to establish agency over their own narratives, and prove the need for different stories that present Muslim women as individuals in order to go against the harmful effects of the single story consistently projected on to them. Through their authorship, story lines, and visual styles, Ms. Marvel and Persepolis provide a counter-hegemonic narrative to prevalent western discourse over Muslim women’s veiling, familial role, and religious faith.

"For an artist to be able to communicate with the world around them, they need to be consistently curious about it."
Sara Alfageeh ’18, Illustration

What inspired you to write this essay?

Representation in the media was always something I was interested in, particularly as a person who identifies as part of an ethnic and religious minority. My geeky interests and politics are always very tied together. I was encouraged to write about topics I was personally invested in, which happen to be a) comics and b) what it means to visibly identify as a Muslim woman in America. The series Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson has been a huge inspiration to me on both ends as an illustrator and reader, and became the focus of my work.

How has your work been influenced by this submission?

I’ve directly shown my influence from Ms. Marvel with the amount of fan art I’ve made in the past year alone. This is the first time I’ve really composed my thoughts on this particular subject. I don’t normally write 20 page essays that are perfectly cited – footnotes and all. However, it’s a subject I’ve thought a lot about, and it’s been underlying commentary for a lot of my illustration pieces. I was lucky enough to work for the media company The Tempest as a cartoonist. They created a platform for millennial women of color to share their stories and outlook in a way not seen before. It’s an “if you want it done right, do it yourself” attitude that has been made possible by social media and alternative methods of storytelling (like comics). I’m proud to contribute to and be a part of this movement.

What does visual literacy mean to you?

I’ve always been more of a visual learner, even before I began to draw and pursue illustration as a career. I tend to do the opposite of what people may normally do. I hone in on the image and use the text supplementation, it has been a strange concept (to me) that graphics and text aren’t being paired together, especially when teaching – it is as though the two are considered two separate methods of relaying information to students. People are absorbing information in a constant stream of images and video and text; it makes sense to bring them all into an educational setting under the same umbrella, and hone all of those comprehension skills.

Do you think cross-discipline courses have strengthened you as an illustrator and artist?

Besides being a refreshing change of pace from back to back studio classes and critiques, I personally would never stop taking History and English courses. It goes beyond the elective requirements. I think it is necessary for illustrators, in particular, to be storytellers of their own craft and become familiar with all the ways story-telling can manifest itself. It feels like 80% of my process (to create a new piece) is research and coming up with concepts. As well as having and pursuing passions outside visual arts, it’s important to expose oneself as an artist to different disciplines in order to open up new creative avenues. For an artist to be able to communicate with the world around them, they need to be consistently curious about it.

See more of Sara's work here: artbyalfa.tumblr.com